Bell has been reading Capon.
I suspected this early on in the book and, sure enough, in the "Further Reading" section he recommends Capon's The Mystery of Christ ... and Why We Don't Get It to learn more about "Jesus in every square inch of creation".
In fact, the book makes more sense if you look at some of the books he recommends, e.g., Lewis' The Great Divorce and Wright's Surprised by Hope. (It may be true of his other recommendations also, but I'm not familiar with them.) What we have in Bell is someone who strongly believes in grace and yet is willing to question many of the assumptions of evangelicalism.
To answer the big question: He is not a universalist, at least not in any direct way. Actually, I think Bell's view is very close to Capon's (from The Romance of the Word, p. 9):
I am and I am not a universalist. I am one if you are talking about what God in Christ has done to save the world. The Lamb of God has not taken away the sins of some — of only the good, or the cooperative, or the select few who can manage to get their act together and die as perfect peaches. He has taken away the sins of the world — of every last being in it — and he has dropped them down the black hole of Jesus’ death. On the cross, he has shut up forever on the subject of guilt: "There is therefore now no condemnation...." All human beings, at all times and places, are home free whether they know it or not, feel it or not, believe it or not.For Bell, love requires freedom. This freedom must include the ability to reject the offered love. True love respects that rejection. So Bell maintains a tension:
But I am not a universalist if you are talking about what people may do about accepting that happy-go-lucky gift of God’s grace. I take with utter seriousness everything that Jesus had to say about hell, including the eternal torment that such a foolish non-acceptance of his already-given acceptance must entail. All theologians who hold Scripture to be the Word of God must inevitably include in their work a tractate on hell. But I will not — because Jesus did not — locate hell outside the realm of grace. Grace is forever sovereign, even in Jesus’ parables of judgment. No one is ever kicked out at the end of those parables who wasn’t included in at the beginning.
- God loves everyone and desires reconciliation with all creatures
- Some people reject that invitation. They may, in fact, continually and forever reject it, thus creating their own hell
He is also not an exclusivist who believes explicit profession of faith in Jesus as Savior is necessary for salvation, though he is clear that Jesus is indeed the only way to God. This will be controversial with some, but it's a pretty widely held belief among Christians, even "conservative" ones.
Bell's hell is rejection of the eternal ("of the age to come") life God offers. This rejection creates all kinds of hell, including the kind on earth. Hell is a word "that refers to the big, wide, terrible evil that comes from the secrets hidden deep within our hearts all the way to the massive, society-wide collapse and chaos that comes when we fail to live in God's world God's way." Hell is punishment, to be sure, but punishment directed toward reconciliation, not retribution. The gates to the New Jerusalem are always open (Rev 21:25).
But God never changes God's nature. That is, God does not move from loving agent of reconciliation to wrathful, fiery tormenter. Bell seems to hold to something like an Orthodox view of hell. God's love is a fire, perceived as bliss by the reconciled but anguish by the rebels. St Isaac of Syria:
I also maintain that those who are punished in Gehenna, are scourged by the scourge of love. Nay, what is so bitter and vehement as the torment of love? ... It would be improper for a man to think that sinners in Gehenna are deprived of the love of God ... The power of love works in two ways: it torments sinners... Thus I say that this is the torment of Gehenna: bitter regret. But love inebriates the souls of the sons of Heaven by its delectability. (Ascetical Homilies 28, Page 141)Bell's view of heaven is also quite good. It's very much a this-worldly view, similar to N.T. Wright's in Surprised by Hope, if I recall correctly. I'll give it short shrift, though, in order to close up this review.
Love Wins is not a rigorous theological work. It is, in the best sense, an inspirational book informed by theology. Dogmatic types will be completely frustrated by Bell's lack of clear, propositional statements. But he is clearly not writing for them. In fact, he seems to be ignoring them completely and focusing on those who have been turned off or discouraged by Christianity as they have encountered it. This could be a very effective book for those people. I'm hoping that those people represent a large part of its astounding sales figures.
If we crave light,
we're drawn to truth,
we're desperate for grace,
we've come to the end of our plots and schemes
and we want someone else's path,
God gives us what we want.
If we have this sense
that we've wandered far from home,
and we want to return,
God is there,
standing in the driveway,
ready to invite us in.
If we thirst for shalom,
and we long for the peace that transcends
God doesn't just give,
they're poured out on us,
until we're overwhelmed.
It's like a feast where the food and wine do not run out.
These desires can start with the planting of an infinitesimally small seed deep in our heart, or a yearning for life to be better, or a gnawing sense that we're missing out, or an awareness that beyond the routine and grind of life there's something more, or the quiet hunch that this isn't all there is. It often has its birth in the most unexpected ways, arising out of our need for something we know we do not have, for someone we know we are not.
And to that,
that impulse, craving, yearning, longing, desire -
God says yes.
Yes, there is water for that thirst,
food for that hunger,
light for that darkness,
relief for that burden.
If we want hell,
if we want heaven,
they are ours.
That's how love works. It can't be forced, manipulated, or coerced.
It always leaves room for the other to decide.
God says yes,
we can have what we want,
because love wins.